Black Comedies, Discomfort, and Challenge
When I walked out of Kingsman: The Secret Service, I turned to my friend and said, “People are going to be angry about the last ten minutes.” Almost immediately, I began to read reviews and comments from people praising the film and then decrying the last ten minutes of the film as somehow ruining the rest of the film. Those ten minutes filled me with glee, as I realized I was watching a pitch black comedy, the type we get precious few of in the wider market. Forgive me if you are already familiar with the intricacies of the genre, but I believe it’s worth unpacking what I mean when I say “black comedy.”
At the most basic level, a black comedy is a comedy relying on satire, cynicism, and taboo subjects for humor, but at the same time treating them as completely serious subjects. The ultimate goal is to carefully balance humor and discomfort. There have been a bevy of black comedies over the years that have achieved critical acclaim, including one of my favorite films of all time, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Nuclear war was a very real fear, and Stanley Kubrick’s film deftly balanced nuclear war, communism, and the use of machismo to hide those fears alongside some of the best comedy of all time. Who doesn’t love General Buck Turgidson or President Merkin Muffley?
As fantastic as this movie is, if it was made half a century later it wouldn’t have nearly the same impact, nor would it even really be considered a black comedy. What was a cultural taboo then doesn’t carry the same impact it does now. A pitch black note of the film is nothing more than a protracted dick joke in the Austin Powers films. There isn’t anything wrong with a dick joke, but I think we can all agree it doesn’t have quite the same impact as Major “King” Kong falling from an airplane with a nuclear missile protruding from between his legs as he waves around his cowboy hat. The important thing about black comedies is the subject matter must shift with the zeitgeist.
In the last decade or so, we have had many films come out and are described as black comedies without doing much to really earn that title. Sure, they can be dark comedies, but a black comedy holding up a mirror to our current social mores and managing to present the subject matter as serious within the context of the film? Sorry, Horrible Bosses, you don’t make the cut. As much as I would never not laugh at This is the End, it is a post-apocalyptic buddy comedy, not really a black comedy. I mean, unless we are all secretly Danny McBride or something. (Let me pause here momentarily to just mention how amazing this film is for giving McBride not one, but two introductions worthy of continual rewatch) Anyway, I’m getting far afield. The point here is many films cover dark subject matter, but fail at the core precepts making it a black comedy. This doesn’t invalidate or devalue the films in anyway, just to be clear.
I Want My MTV
This brings me back to Kingsman: The Secret Service. The film presents hyper-violence and courtly manners, juxtaposed with blue-skied optimism and genocide. This is a purposeful satire of James Bond, and one working all the more for being a spy tale worthy of Bond. The villain’s plot hides behind social activism and charitable acts. There is the loss of a mentor, critical to a coming of age tale. The heroes must infiltrate a fancy dress party at the villain’s secret base. Part of the plan involves going into space. The villain has an awesome and stylish henchman, with a twist. In short, everything the most iconic of Bond films possess, and the film absolutely treats these things with respect, pushing them as far as they can go. So why is there surprise that the bombastic finale involves literal fireworks and rescuing an actual princess, who rewards the hero with anal sex?
Rewinding the film, you’ll find this whole sequence hinges on what is essentially the most Bondian of jokes. Eggsy, the main character, approaches the cell deep in the villain’s lair holding the Icelandic princess. In that dorky suave way of his, he asks for a kiss if he saves the world. She responds in a thick accent that if he succeeds, they can do it in the asshole. I remember seeing this scene and thinking, “Oh shit. Matt Vaughn just did that.” Which, by the way, was basically Eggsy’s response to the whole thing. The fast talking, faux-sauve kid loses all composure and hauls off to go complete this task. He succeeds, stops to get a bottle of champagne, and then loosens his tux in the most Bondian of ways, finding the princess eager to reward the man that saved the world. (I stop here for a moment to point out this scene is actually two anal sex jokes, as the code to release the princess, 2625, spells “anal” on a phone.) Instead of the sexually implicit one-liners that would then fill a Bond film, the camera shows the bare behind of the process and holds long enough to make everyone wonder if the scene is going to continue. Just when you are questioning, you get the cut to another character who is watching this unfold on computer monitors.
Yes, it is problematic that sex is used as a reward and a right of the hero in these types of films. The whole point of the scene is the discomfort. You should feel uncomfortable watching the scene. It nails the cultural discomfort with non-standard sexual acts and the damsel-in-distress stereotype. It doesn’t attempt to subvert them; it carries through on the joke and takes you to the finale where there is a moment of first-person view of you approaching an ass. It hammers home that no matter how polished these suave tales are, this is what you are watching. This is a James Bond joke in the real world. Slimy as hell, right?
I’m reminded of the episode of Always Sunny in Philadelphia where Dennis and Mac buy a boat. Dennis is discussing the need to buy a mattress, and Mac doesn’t understand the need. Dennis then goes on at length about getting a girl tipsy and leading her down to the cabin to show her the mattress. She will obviously want to have sex then, because of the implication. The rest of the scene is unpacked as a showcase of just how deranged Dennis truly is, and how Mac forces him to spell out the implication. Again, this scene is played stone cold in the show, but showcases what exactly this joke would look like in the real world. Pro-tip: terrifying and police-alerting.
This isn’t saying only sexual situations challenge us.
Squishy Squishy Egg Heads
It hurts me to remember this movie came out two and a half years ago, and because of Disney and Marvel we have had no other Edgar Wright film, but in October of 2013 The World’s End, the end of the Cornetto Trilogy, was released. I walked away from the film thinking this was the boldest of the entries, and was truly surprised to discover people felt it was the weakest of the three entries. When I asked people what issues they had with the film, or why they felt the way they did, they would shrug and say the film was really funny, but there was just something about it making them feel as if the film was a little off. I didn’t hear anyone mentioning the film as a black comedy, most sticking with comedic science fiction. However, a black comedy is what the film really is. The film works like gangbusters on the surface level, with the frenetic action and comedy chops associated with Edgar Wright. I can’t stress enough how good his action is. The bar fight scene shames so many mainstream action blockbusters. The underlying story, however, revolves around a completely contemptible human being named Gary King.
Gary King peaked in high school and wants to relive his glory days. At least, this is the story presented in the opening moments of the film, as Gary tells this story to what seems like a group of people at what seems like an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, due to the scandalized stares he receives. He then attempts to relive this glorious moment of his life and finish The Golden Mile, the pub crawl route, having failed on that fateful night so long ago. Of course, there is an obstacle between him and his former best friend, Andy Knightley. Something caused a rift between Gary and Andy, his friend who protected and near worshipped him.
The film then tells the story of the friends as they reflect on where they are in their lives and what they used to be like. Over the course of the film, it becomes clear that the town is infested with alien pod people, and a tale of survival and escapism begins to play out. This silly farce of a comedy plays out on the surface, all the while driving home just how unlikeable Gary is and who Andy has turned into as a man: one who doesn’t drink and claims it makes him feel more of a man to not do so. It’s clear Gary is a raging alcoholic, not just living in the past, but wanting to recreate it.
Later in the film, you discover the cause of the rift. Gary was involved in a drunk driving accident, not just injuring Andy, but allowing Andy to take the blame on his behalf. Gary never thanked him or apologized, being too cowardly on both fronts. It’s also revealed that Andy’s wife left him, and despite the progress he has seemingly made in his life, he is no better off than Gary. Gary’s alcoholism isn’t a secret in the film, but what is revealed instead is Gary wasn’t at an AA meeting, he was at a Suicide Survivors help group, having tried and failed to kill himself.
Yeah, that’s a statement within a film about alien bodysnatching and a potential alien apocalypse. It shouldn’t be a surprise to find something like this in the film, and there is a lot more, but for the sake of brevity and progress, I will just say this: no one I talked to wanted to discuss this part of the film. No one brought it up first, or discussed just how prominent the role of alcoholism was in the film. Everyone quotes the old Simpsons joke about alcohol as the cause and solution to life’s problems, but The World’s End makes the joke a reality and shows what it looks like. The film ends with the friends drunkenly causing an apocalypse while life goes on, and Gary joins the replicants of his friends to fight people that now hate replicants. For him, it’s not a regression to a childhood state. It’s a chance to go back to the time of his life that led him to his current path, and choose something different. For him, apocalypse was a revelation. The parallel is purposeful.
The last thing I will say about this film is it wasn’t until further investigation into the film that I realized all of the main characters had surnames associated with a feudal court and their names not only reflected their roles, but their character arcs and journeys. That doesn’t have anything to do with black comedies. I just think more people should learn why I believe Edgar Wright is the best working director and writer. Ben Wheatley is rapidly climbing. No one asked. I just want to rewatch Kill List, Sightseers, and a Field in England after watching the trailer for High Rise yesterday.
The last example of a current black comedy I’d like to discuss is Rick and Morty. Yes, it’s a cartoon. Yes, it features crude animation and gross-out humor. It’s also the best show on television. Let’s fight about it.
Once again we see rampant alcoholism rear its head as a device, and as in The World’s End, it’s not played as a laugh. Sure, you laugh, but for the characters in the show, it’s a sad and scary subject. Alcoholism isn’t even what makes the show dark. Out of everything discussed here, this show is the one making people I talk to most uncomfortable. Some friends don’t like the animation, some don’t like the burping and voice work, and others just say there is something about it making them uncomfortable. All of these things are on purpose. I don’t want to go into it in too much detail, but the discussion of art is a very real one that occurs in Rick and Morty, with the animation style echoing the core theme of the show, science versus social norms. Same with the voice work. The speech patterns are a conscious decision.
The show takes every conceit and stretches it to the limit. This is what makes the show so goddamn good and blacker than the night sky. Don’t get me wrong. I love Futurama, but it has a sense of winking humor you won’t find in Rick and Morty. Sure, Futurama nods to the expectation of status quo in sitcoms and mainstream television, even showing buildings on fire as the credits roll, but it’s not really invested in carrying the joke through to the following week. Rick and Morty? Well, Rick and Morty has an incredibly nuanced episode where this very subject is discussed. On the surface, the plot works as a zombie/monster outbreak episode, and has a subplot of Jerry, Rick’s son-in-law and Morty’s dad, manning up to face his (very real) fear that the handsome doctor that Beth, Rick’s daughter and Morty’s mom, works with is trying to make a move on her.
Morty requests a love potion to make a girl interested in him, something that Rick calls out as skeevy, but ultimately he helps out Morty, after Morty forcefully recounts all the sacrifices he’s made for Rick. Unfortunately, Jessica, the girl Marty is crushing on, has the flu, which causes the love potion to spread to others and turn them into lust monsters that literally want a piece of Morty. Rick attempts to correct this by mixing more and more animal DNA in a serum and spreading that serum all over town. The result is, as the show puts it, a Cronenberg monster reality. David Cronenberg, of course, is known for his depiction of psychosexual body horror, something that probably goes over the head over the younger-skewed audience of Adult Swim. I questioned a handful of younger views, 20 and below, and none of them had ever see any of his films. Hardly scientific, but still.
Anyway, as the situation deteriorates, Jerry takes more and more control of the situation, saving Summer, his daughter, and making it to safety with Beth. At the end of the episode, Beth comments that their lives are better off with less responsibility, and without Rick and Morty to worry about. Jerry is the leader of the family, and the three of them have found peace in a world full of monsters. Meanwhile, Rick and Morty arrive back in their garage, commenting that Rick once again saved the world at the last moment. Rick then asks Morty for a tool in order to work on the object that he was working on at the beginning of the episode, and we are treated to the bloody deaths of Rick and Morty. Soon after, Rick and Morty appear through an open portal and hastily clean up, with Rick informing Morty this reality is most like their own, so they can easily take the place of the dead. The episode ends with a montage of Morty going through the motions of a normal life, spliced against images of him cleaning up and burying his parallel self. Even better, this is referenced in future episodes, just to let the viewer know the earlier episode wasn’t a one off. It’s now the reality of the show.
Of course, this episode pales in comparison to a second season episode where Rick encounters his old girlfriend, Unity. Unity is an alien hivemind currently in process of enslaving an entire world. In fact we are introduced to Unity as she violently wipes the last traces of personality from some aliens Rick, Morty, and Summer encounter. In scenes of mutual destruction, we see that Rick is a bad influence on Unity, and slowly erodes the advances she has made in control and responsibility since their last meeting. Rick lives out his bizarre sexual fantasy, which are equal parts humorous and disturbing.
Summer and Morty attempt to break Unity’s control, only to discover that the planet is full of violent racists hellbent on killing and performing unspeakable acts on each other. Realizing things are complex, Morty and Summer head home and leave Rick to further debase himself with Unity. However, this act, and Rick’s indifference to his grandkids leaving him, drive Unity to dump Rick. In her breakup note, Unity specifies that Rick’s cult of personality makes him better at enslaving people than she is, because he makes people crave his approval and love. Ever the one to act like he doesn’t care, Rick goes home and begins tinkering in his garage as a sad love song plays. As the song plays, Rick’s cute little tinkering turns into an attempted suicide. After it fails, Rick breaks down and weeps to end the episode.
This is a brilliant example of black comedy done well. The entire episode is increasingly challenging and uncomfortable. First there is the exploration and acceptance of mental domination, then an examination of the vile behaviors of man, mixed in with sexual freedom and frivolity, ending with what it means to lose someone you love and failure to cope. It’s not exactly light fare, and it’s not hard to see how it can make someone so very, very uneasy.
Black comedies are important because the best of them continually challenge us. They force us out of our comfort zones and make us look at things we would never seek out. Believe it or not, this is exactly what you should be thinking about when designing encounters, combat or otherwise, for your tabletop game. Make your players uncomfortable, and force them to engage in ways they would not choose, all things being equal. Without challenge, stagnation occurs. Stagnation is a surefire way for players to become disinterested and stop contributing to your sessions. It’s only by challenging your players will they discover new things about themselves, their characters, and how they interact with the game world in a truly organic fashion. What’s the old saying? You can’t fake candid.
Discomfort? In MY Game?
Games are not like other media in a crucial way. A television show doesn’t offer the level of agency you have when you play a game. Good GMs expand player agency, if not necessarily the choices. Players should be free to seek non-challenging encounters if they so desire, or at least easier encounters, but without facing challenging encounters, these other encounters become rote and dismissable. Again, when I say challenging here, I don’t mean numerically difficult. Players should be made uncomfortable by what they are encountering. Yes, it might mean players are not at their absolute best all the time. It’s okay, do it anyway.
You don’t need to go as sweeping as the subjects broached in the above media. As a GM, you will know your players and what represents their comfort zone. Even a little bit of a change is good, and can represent a meaningful challenge. This might be as simple as enforcing a turn timer, asking that all chatter at the table during a combat cease if it is not your turn to act, or having a traditionally non-face character have to serve as the party’s face during a series of awkward social encounters. Anything your players don’t normally do, consider plopping them into a situation working against their natural inclinations.
You want them to consider what they have previously done in the context of what they are doing, and re-examine it after the current situation is resolved. Look for situations where the choice of one thing means another thing moves of its own accord. They want to check out the mines? No problem, the trade caravan hired different guards. This might not seem like challenge on the face, but forcing meaningful decision is one of the ultimate expressions of challenge, in many ways. You don’t want choice paralysis, but you do want them to feel like their choices matter. If you can get them to consider moral implications, all the better.
In terms of combat, providing a challenge should be more than a numerical effort. The players should be forced to move if they are not used to moving. Break the party up. You can have a doodad requiring frequent interaction, challenging them to figure out how to handle it. Make the order of creature death really matter, causing them to consider the best way to engage – especially useful if the group commonly attempts to alpha strike encounters. You can present multiple, conflicting goals, such as saving the hostages, stopping the ritual, or retrieving an artifact. There are myriad ways, and I am not here to tell you which ones work best. I don’t play in your games. I haven’t had your experience. I don’t know.
I’m just here to say that you should attempt to make your players and their characters uncomfortable, and frequently. Take things to their dark ends. Treat everything in your game as if it matters. Make characters feel bad about their actions. Challenge them on every level. If they overthrow a tyrant, follow up with some examination of what the nation looks like now and what problems they are facing. Nothing is as simple as it seems, and acknowledging complexity goes a long way. As long as you treat it as it should be treated in your world, it’s going to be fine. The more things are treated as real, the more your players interact with the world accordingly. The more interaction, the more challenge you can present.
Don’t be afraid. Challenge is a good thing, and you should challenge your players and characters a much as possible. Make them uncomfortable, and make them explore new concepts, solutions, and situations. Without challenge there can’t be any growth, and as a GM, you should always look for ways to improve. Challenging content is what your players will remember and discuss for years to come. It’s not an easy thing, but it is a good thing.